Frisky Q&A: Melissa Gira Grant, Author Of Playing The Whore: The Work Of Sex Work

Melissa Gira Grant Playing The Whore

If you’ve done any reading on the Internet about the business of sex work, chances are you’ve come across Melissa Gira Grant. She’s written about sex, politics, labor and tech everywhere from the UK’s Guardian to The Atlantic  to Jezebel and Valleywag, making her one of the top intellectuals to turn to when America needs an explanation about why we’re so weird about sex.

A former “web cam girl,” Grant just published her latest book, Playing The Whore: The Work Of Sex Work, which is unlike any book about sex work or feminism that I’ve ever read. In it, she critiques law enforcement’s treatment of actual or perceived sex workers; labor issues surrounding sex work; and the tendency for governments and some outreach workers to treat all sex workers as “victims” in need of being “rescued.” However complicated you might have thought issues pertaining to sex work were before, Grant’s excellent book is extraordinarily illuminating.

Grant recently spoke to me about “whore stigma,” feminism, police, and the media’s struggle to accurately cover sex workers. Our Q&A begins after the jump:

The Frisky: So, what got you interested in writing a book about sex work in the first place?

Melissa Gira Grant: For the last few years, I’ve been covering sex work as a reporter and a writer. Probably the very first thing I ever wrote about sex work was actually when I was in high school. For some reason I decided to write a paper in my English class about prostitution in Victorian London. … [T]hat was the first time, so it certainly predated knowing anybody who did sex work. So for a long time I think my interest was about how sex work is situated in our society, how the role of women in particular who sell sex has been understood and their relationship to all women.

Then once I actually was doing sex work, I think my interests even broadened and got a lot deeper. I was much more interested in where the book goes, which is this idea of the politics of how we represent sex workers and what role sex workers have in writing their own stories and talking about their own lives. That’s something I’m particularly interested in now as a journalist where I see that even in stories that are supposed to be well-reported and grounded in evidence, typically it’s a member of law enforcement or somebody who works at an NGO who will be considered an “expert” in sex work over a sex worker. You very rarely hear sex workers telling their own stories in the media in their own voice, so I wanted to do something to address that.

How willing is the media to tell the types of stories about sex work that you’re trying to write? Do you think editors that make assignments have a hard time looking beyond their own prejudices?

I think it really varies. … I don’t tell personal stories about my own experience in sex work, but I’m happy to tell personal stories about my experience in navigating the media. Just as in sex work people’s experiences are broad and diverse, my experiences with the media have been all over the place, but mostly good. I think part of that is, I’m a freelancer so I do get to choose which editors I work with to a certain extent. I think that if I were working in a newsroom somewhere, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to do what I do. Even though it would be really great to be able to work with people who are much more on the beat day-in and day-out of law enforcement, because there’s certainly a lot that I think I would learn.

… [S]tock photos, that’s an issue where sex work is certainly also very negatively represented and often represented in super cliche ways. So, one thing that I’ve gotten in the habit of doing is asking editors if I can choose, or at least have some choice over their choice of what art they use to illustrate stories. That’s something that I think is simple, and it can make a huge impact on the story.

Then, kind of in a bigger picture way … I do take my choice of experts very seriously, and I don’t want to write a story where sex workers don’t have the ability to go on the record and speak for themselves. I don’t want to do a story where it’s just outsiders speaking for sex workers. This gets at the representational issues that go even beyond my own role as someone who used to do sex work [who is now] writing about sex work. I’m often writing about things that I have not experienced myself. [For example] one group of stories I worked on last year were about violence that trans women in sex work were facing in just disproportionate numbers and often very brutal acts of violence that were as much about them being trans as them doing sex work [and about] them being out in a part of the city that the police didn’t particularly care about. They felt like they didn’t have a lot of recourse with police, also, when they were asking for help. So that’s something where very often those stories, I think, are presented in a really sensational way. In fact, both of those stories involve media criticism, with me saying, “Look at how these have been reported, and look at the stereotypes that you see of trans women in the media, and [how those stereotypes] contribute to violence.” So, I end up doing media criticism sometimes as well.

I was really interested to read about the concept of “whore stigma,” which is something that even women who don’t perform sex work experience. Can you explain that concept for us? 

“Whore stigma” is something that actually predates slut-shaming, which I think people are more familiar with. When people talk about “slut shaming,” that generally refers to women being shamed for actual or perceived sex that they’re involved in. Sometimes it’s about judgement based on their looks and sometimes it’s about judgment based on their sexual identity or their gender identity, but it’s very much about trying to put women in their place for what people think they’re doing in bed.

I would define “whore stigma” a little differently — it’s something that actually comes from Gail Peterson, who I quote in the book, who talked about this in the ’90s as something that she saw impacting different kinds of women in different ways. That’s why I refer to it as the original sexual insult, sort of cheekily but quite seriously. ["Whore stigma"] isn’t just about shaming of women for being sexual, but there’s a certain connotation to being called a “whore” that comes with this idea of cheapness that I think has a lot to do with judging women based on class, or at least the perception of what their class is.

There’s also something about it that really, you know, when you think of how “whore” gets shorthanded and the practice of insulting women as “hoes.” Feminista Jones just wrote a great piece about this for Ebony — the idea that this is an insult that particularly targets black women; there’s something about the “whore stigma” that is about women who are just perceived as too cheap, too dark, too out of control. There’s a different edge to it.

For me, it was very clarifying seeing how the social dimensions of [whore stigma] — the way that people make dead hooker jokes, the way that people engage in slut-shaming — are connected to this larger kind of political thing of who is more likely to get policed in anti-prostitution policy and also, who’s most likely to be targeted with violence by people posing as customers. So, [whore stigma] is not just about shaming and insulting people, but it also has really devastating real-world consequences. Not that shaming and insulting aren’t a real-world consequence, but there’s a dimension of it that’s actually quite more dangerous.

Yeah, I think pointing out “whore stigma” can be a better way to position sexual issues to people that may not be slut-shaming exactly, and therefore they’re defensive about how they’re not doing that, but yet they’re still saying or doing something extremely problematic in regards to women and sex.  

Yeah, sometimes I feel like [when people are] saying “don’t you call me a slut,” it sort of preserves the idea that to be a slut is a really terrible thing. Versus saying, “Wait a minute, why are we categorizing women based on what we think their sex lives contain? Why are we doing that to ourselves?” I think a lot of this happens between women, which makes it a lot harder to talk about.

Can you talk about some of the biggest errors that you see the mainstream media making in its coverage of issues of sex work?

Sometimes it’s just about what the media chooses to cover and to focus on. … Number one, usually [the focus is] just about prostitution. … [T]he usual stories that you’re going to come across in the media about prostitution are about arrests. Either arrests of sex workers, or now we’re seeing more and more stories about the arrest of men who are buying sex. And typically they’ll just have a law enforcement source and they don’t necessarily speak to the people who were arrested.  Sometimes they contain mugshots, sometimes they even contain names and addresses of people who are arrested.

What I notice is very rarely does a publication or media outlet follow up and tell you what happened in these cases. There’s very rarely the follow-up story of “this person fought their charges, and this is what happened.” Those are the kinds of stories that I think would give a greater picture of what’s going on, but they’re not considered important. The story is considered to be “we are fighting prostitution” and then the story is, like, the evidence of fighting prostitution. … Sometimes you’ll see stories that are more like profiles of people who do sex work, but they’re generally presented as victim stories, so they will be somebody who used to do sex work but now they don’t do it anymore, and it’s the story of their transition. Or, in some cases they’ll even talk about it as a redemption from that part of their life, and so you get this idea that everybody who does sex work wants to leave. I think that you very rarely hear from people who are doing sex work and it’s just something that they do, whether they’re having a great time or a bad time. It’s very rarely represented as just sort of an everyday thing.

I feel like especially in women’s magazines, there’s also a lot of stories about women who are sugar babies.

Yeah, those go through waves, too I think, particularly when Seeking Arrangements sends out press releases, right?

Yeah. And I always find them annoying to read, because it is such a very narrow sub-section of women. Usually it’s positioned as “they’re doing this to pay for college and/or to buy nice handbags and shoes” and that’s always the type of sugar babies story that you read, over and over again.

Right. You have to wonder, well, are there sugar babies where that is not their experience? I can speak from the other side as someone who gets these media inquiries all the time [from] reporters who want me to weigh in on the story.  Like, just yesterday, someone asked me if I could find them exotic dancers to interview for a story. Or I also get media requests that are like “we’re doing a story about how the sugar baby economy is exploding and women who are in college who would never otherwise do this are doing this” so already they’ve decided who they’re casting for the story. I think that influences it a lot, too. People who don’t have those experiences because the media doesn’t even consider that they exist, we never hear about them.

Can you think of a TV show or a movie, or even an episode of a TV show that you thought was particularly good or egregiously bad in terms of how it portrayed sex work?

I’m watching “Community” right now, and there’s a bit in the first season where Chevy Chase’s character, Pierce, brings an escort to a school dance. It’s a community college dance so theoretically these are all adults, and it’s just really hilarious the way that they let her character, the escort character, not be the butt of the joke. Like she was actually there driving the humor and even at one point, she gets frustrated with Pierce and was, like, “If you want to keep hanging out with me, here’s what it’s gonna cost” and gets up and walks away. It’s presented in a way of kind of putting him down, like, “Oh look at this guy trying to get a freebie out of somebody who’s an escort” and I just thought that was really nuanced and interesting and you really don’t see that, you know? [Usually on TV the joke is] more like “oh my gosh, I didn’t know that this woman was an escort!” [or] “I didn’t know that this woman was a porn star” and then it was a big deal and it’s played for jokes.

I haven’t even made it through “Secret Diary Of A Call Girl.” I downloaded the first two episodes or something. A lot of media [that claims to be a story about sex workers] I don’t even watch it unless I really am prepared to be horrified by it, because it’s usually so bad. I like the idea that people want to do it  – and I certainly get emails from documentary people or TV people who are like “we want to do a show that’s representing the real lives of sex workers.” And then I find out that they don’t actually know any. It’s like “ok, well, maybe you should start there, I don’t know.” I understand the impulse, everyone wants to be sympathetic  — or they say they want to be sympathetic, and then you find out that they don’t actually know how to do that. I don’t know many sex workers who are willing to be the guinea pigs of the media in that way.

In so much of the book you talk about police interactions with sex work. Can you speak a little bit about what your main critique is about the way that sex work is policed in America?

You see one tactic in one city or state and then you see it duplicated somewhere else. One of the things that I see common across the U.S. for policing prostitution — or policing people who are believed to be prostitutes who aren’t actually engaged in prostitution — is the practice of using condoms that someone might be carrying as evidence of prostitution. So, sometimes this gets talked about as “it’s illegal to carry more than X number of condoms,” but that’s not really what’s going on. What’s going on is sort of more like stop and frisk, where the police are already policing an area and they’re engaging in some level of racial or gender profiling, deciding who they’re going to stop in many cases. Once they stop somebody then they will search them and if they do have condoms, and they fit sort of what they believe is somebody who appears to be soliciting prostitution, which is another super vague thing.

The way that the law is written, you don’t really have to catch somebody in the act of having sex for money; in some cases, a verbal agreement [to have sex] is something you can get arrested for. In some cases there are places that have laws against things like “manifesting prostitution,” which is something that’s an offense in Arizona. Something as simple as waving or beckoning to a car or a person could be construed as solicitation. There’s a lot going on with street-level prostitution enforcement but it’s usually a mix of profiling and then these kinds of things that I think raise some real civil rights issues in terms of how they’re going after people.

The condoms one is just particularly mind-boggling because, you know, we put so much attention in New York or San Francisco or other cities that are really prioritizing getting condoms into people’s hands as a form of public health practice. Then, on the other hand, they’re turning around and funding police to actually take them away from people and use them as evidence of a crime, which creates and incentive not to carry them if you’re concerned that by carrying them you’re actually going to expose yourself to arrest.

So that’s one thing and just in brief, a few other things that I’ve seen in multiple places is this idea of creating a “prostitution-free zone” where members of law enforcement — usually it’s somebody higher up like a commissioner or somebody who might be in a leadership position — can just decree that a certain block radius or neighborhood is “prostitution-free zone.” Either for a short period of time and they might have to renew it, or something that’s more permanent, and what happens in those places are, again, if you’re in that place and you’re somebody the police have profiled as a likely prostitute and they believe that you’re engaging in a behavior that seems like you’re soliciting, they can arrest you. In some cases, just being in the area and fitting their description of what they think a prostitute is can get you arrested in those places. The kinds of people who are most likely targeted in prostitution-free zones are sometimes outreach workers who are bringing condoms and other outreach materials to sex workers, sometimes trans women report being targeted just for being out walking in a neighborhood. Literally, the way people talk about “walking while black,” this is essentially “walking while trans,” and then being targeted by police for it.

Given how critical you are about law enforcement’s policing of sex work, have you had the experience of criminal justice folks reaching out to you because they’ve read your writing and it’s changed how they’ve looked at these issues?

I’ve talked to a lot of lawyers, but generally on the defense side of things. I find their work actually really interesting and really essential to understanding what’s going on. So I actually find a lot of commonality in talking through just how these laws are actually working in practice in people’s lives, because that’s what I’m really interested in. There’s somebody who actually was part of an anti-trafficking task force in California who I’ve interviewed for pieces and has been an interesting source and allowed me to name him and talk about what he does. [But] that’s pretty rare. I do wonder if — the further and further that these anti-prostitution police tactics go, and the more attention is paid to them — I do wonder if that will open up space for members of law enforcement to question what’s going on and maybe to be a little more open with the press about that. They don’t really have a lot of incentive [right now] to do so.

Can you talk a bit about how you feel mainstream feminism right now is doing on issues pertaining to sex work?

That’s a huge question.  I don’t want to confuse the debates that we see in the media about feminism as [representing] all of feminism, because I think it tends to be just a slice of what’s going on for people who are feminists or who engage in feminist activism. The thing that was really surprising to me researching the book was seeing how a lot of the issues that are coming up right now in mainstream media debates around feminism [are] issues of exclusion and representation and people getting spoken about rather than getting opportunities to speak for themselves. [Regarding sex work] this is something that has been a problem within the feminist movement for 20 or 30 years. The other thing that I’ve noticed is that generally the same kinds of feminist visuals or projects that exclude sex workers tend to also exclude transgender women and tend to be really trusting of the criminal legal system in ways that I think people are becoming more critical of.

Just looking at what happened just this week in responses to the piece that Amanda Marcotte wrote for Slate about, you know, should law enforcement be able to take into custody survivors of rape in the course of an investigation in order compel them to testify? She said that she did believe they should be able to do that because it served this greater good of going after bad guys. That’s the logic of anti-prostitution policing, too. More and more, feminists have been able to — some feminists, not all, certainly —  get law enforcement to look at sex workers as victims and to look at sex work as a form of violence against women. Sometimes — and this also isn’t all law enforcement — some will say that what they’re doing is they’re treating sex workers as victims and not as criminals. So the idea that you should arrest a victim in order to help them and in order to put the bad guys behind bars, that’s happening all the time for sex workers. It was really interesting to see that kind of bubble up and be a controversial moment outside of just this issue, but it is definitely something that comes up a lot when thinking about sex workers’ rights and feminism.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity. 

Read more from Melissa Gira Grant on her blog PostWhoreAmerica.com and follow her on Twitter. Playing The Whore is on sale now

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